Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Reading about Photography Exercise: Analyse an essay

Analysis of Understanding a Photograph - John Berger

Understanding a Photograph – John Berger is an essay written in 1972 which sets out to dispute the idea that photography should be considered art.

His main arguments are:

  • Unlike paintings and sculptures, photography has not moved into the realms of being ‘preserved in sacred isolation’ in museums and therefore has not been made mysterious to exclude the masses.
  • To have a value as ‘Art,’ art must have a monetary value and is only valuable as property or props which indicate a certain lifestyle.
  • Photographs have no value as they are not rare and can be easily reproduced.
  • Photography is everyday; the fact everything can be photographed and continually would render it meaningless. The only message a photograph has is that the photographer thought the scene worth capturing.
  • Photographs are considered ‘good’ only when properly composed yet this composition is merely an imitation of paintings. True composition cannot happen in photography unless studio shots.
  • Photography is a popular medium used mainly for the production of mementos.
  • Due to it’s representation of realities photography is merely a weapon which needs to be understood only to enable us to use it politically.
According to Berger (1972) paintings and sculptures as an art form are dying. This he argues, is due to their consideration as property; becoming isolated, available only to the elite. However, in contradiction to this painters and sculptors are still producing bodies of work. Statues are erected in public spaces and not all are shut inside museums to be considered the preserve of the ‘nobility’. With the development of the Internet art is available to a much wider audience.

Aaron Schuman, editor of SeeSaw magazine and Charlotte Cotton, curator and head of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, recently discussed the direction photography is taking. Cotton talks about elitism only being an issue when attributed to a ‘high-art version’; if a common understanding, part of a ‘collective culture’, it takes a different form, being ‘self elected elitism rather than the elitism of an establishment.’

Berger’s (1972) stance that photographs have not yet reached the levels of being displayed in museums and considered as ‘property’ is no longer valid. Since 1972 more museums have photographic archives, and specialised museums have opened, for example The Museum of Photographic Arts, The Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, National Media Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. 

Another argument is that mass production removes value, Berger (1972). Nonetheless the Mona Lisa's monetary value and artistic integrity has not altered despite being reproduced. The same can be said of photographs. In May 2011 Cindy Sherman's "Untitled" (1981) sold at auction for $3,890,500.00. There will be an original, authenticity being one way value is attributed, it is just more difficult to prove. But even so each image has its own unique path to being created.  Admittedly a photograph is taken using a mechanical process but there are variables, settings can be altered, light experimented with and artistry applied. Value can also lie in social, cultural and aesthetic worth.

It was Benjamin (1936) who argued that original pieces had an ‘aura’ and that the physical setting, usually within the homes of the ruling elite, made them even more distant from the masses and that reproduction diminished this aura and therefore value. Many of Berger’s arguments are based upon his and Benjamin’s Marxist outlook on how art is perceived/stored or shown to the ruling classes/proletariat. Most of the arguments within Understanding a Photograph echo points raised by Benjamin but this is not referenced.
Berger’s writing style is easy to read, he does not use overly technical jargon or flowery vocabulary, the essay is presented as his opinion with no academic evidence or references being given.

In a similar vein Berger (1972) points out that a photograph is testimony to what someone has deemed worthy of recording. The possibility exists that this event or subject can be photographed continually which he argues would render it meaningless. However each photograph would be individual, taken from an alternative perspective, the audience can read into it their own interpretations, discover diffferent messages therefore enabling it to retain meaning.

Berger (1972) points out that photographers mimic the composition of paintings and only images considered as good follow these rules. Paintings follow the Fibonacci ratio, but this ratio occurs in the natural world therefore it can be argued that it is art, in whatever form, imitating life. These rules of composition make an image more pleasing to the eye, easier to read, make them have more impact but art evolves. It was not until the 15th Century that the Florentine architect Fillipo Brunelleshi created the first painting known to make use of linear perspective. Picasso and Matisse tore up the rule book yet again. Why can’t photography do the same?

Since when has ‘art’ merely been produced for the sake of being ‘art’? Photographs, it is true, are used on the whole by people capturing ‘mementos’, family, friends and holidays but they are also used to capture historic events, to convey a precise moment in time, emotions and possibly to deliver a message. The extravagant court portraiture of the Tudor period was used mainly for politics, to show the health and wealth of the nation/monarch or the latest triumph in battle. The fact that it was a popular medium used mainly for producing a political or religious message never detracted from the fact it was ‘art’.

The dawn of the digital age has changed how images can be manipulated and images can be changed to represent many things. It is difficult to argue now that photographs only pin down one moment in time. This is so dependent on the particular style or genre of photography.

As to the use of photography as a weapon? This accusation could be put to many aspects of day to day life. Propaganda rears its ugly head in many forms of art, written or visual.

Having argued against most of Berger’s points I can’t say resolutely that he is wrong in his initial statement that photography should not be considered art. I just don’t think the issues raised to back his arguments have stood the test of time. In a recent article in the British Journal of Photography David Campany, a writer and academic, was asked the question ‘what is the relationship between photography and art?’ He replied, ‘I don’t have a clue anymore.’ This makes me feel better that I too, have reached no solid conclusion.

Any drawing is a drawing, but are all drawings art? All photographs are photographs, but are all photographs art? Returning to the original question, is photography art, to be honest I am not sure. Having been to the Shadow Catchers exhibition, photographic techniques can definitely be said to produce works of art. However, I have also seen photographs exhibited that I have viewed and questioned ‘what makes that art?’ It would appear, as with most works of art, the answer is subjective. As far as I am concerned there is an artistic approach to photography, and, as with any piece of art, it can succeed or fail with its message/ability to stir emotion. I have also reached the conclusion I don't know enough about art to argue against some of the comparisons he makes with regards to paitings versus photographs.

An observation made by Schuman was that maybe photography is pushed as art because ‘it’s scary for institutions to promote a visual medium as something other than ‘Art’.’ Cotton and Schuman spoke in detail of changes in photography and of losing the idea of considering the photographer as an ‘artiste,’ this freedom would allow photography to just ‘be’, that ‘it’s finally come into its own.’ Maybe we should allow photography to stand on its own two feet and just ‘be’.

References and Research

Balcomb, R. (2001) Is photography art?[online] The Scream Online Magazine of Art. Available from:
[Accessed 19 July 2011]

Benjamin, W. (1936) The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction [online] Marxist Internet Archive. Available from:
[Accessed 19 July 2011]

Briot, A. (n.d.) Reflections on photography and art. [online] The Luminous Landscape. Available from:[Accessed 19 July 2011]

Cotton, C & Schuman, A. (2011) What's next: Aaron Schuman and Charlotte Cotton: in conversation [online] Seesaw Magazine. Originally published in FOAM:Whats Next?#42 Available from:  [Accessed 18 July 2011]

Payne,O. (2008) A history of perspective in art [online] Op Art. Available from:
Smyth, D. (2011) Is photography art? [online] 1854 A blog by the Editors of BJP. British Journal of Photography. Available from:
[Accessed 19 July 2011]


  1. But what is art, anyway? ; -)

  2. Who knows.....I certainly wouldn't be brave enough to say I did lololol